This should be a fun race to watch. The Braves have really jumped out here in the early going, but they’ll be battling Washington all year long for the top spot in the division, maybe even the league. It’ll probably come down to health; both teams have already dealt with injuries to key players in the early going.
1st place: Washington Nationals
Last year, Washington would’ve been the consensus #1 heading into the playoffs if not for the infamous Stephen Strasburg shutdown. Somehow, six months later, his arm is now ready for 220+ innings. Whatever, Mike Rizzo. As it stands, the ‘Nats boast one of the best rotations in the majors: Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmerman could each make a run at 20 wins. Dan Haren looks lost, but Washington is banking that the old vet still has a little left in the tank. If he does, look out. I love the bullpen, especially with the addition of Rafael Soriano. As long as Clippard and Storen don’t let their egos keep them from pitching effectively in the 7th and 8th, this bullpen is very solid. The lineup will benefit from Denard Span in the leadoff spot. Bryce Harper looks primed for a monster year and as long as Ryan Zimmerman isn’t on the shelf for too long, this squad should score plenty of runs. I give them the slight nod over Atlanta on the basis of the rotation.
2nd place: Atlanta Braves
Personally, I think they overpaid for B.J. Upton. He has decent pop, but he’s a .240 hitter. They already have a couple of guys that fit that bill (McCann, Uggla). But brother Justin looks like an early MVP candidate. I think Jason Heyward is huge for them. If he continues his progress, this team will be hard to stop. But Brave fans should hope his ground ball rate doesn’t revert back to ’11 form. I don’t LOVE the pitching on this team. One of these days, Tim Hudson’s arm is going to fall off; until then, he’ll keep using smoke and mirrors to get guys out. Medlen looks like the real deal, but Tehran is unproven and Paul Maholm is pitching over his head. The bullpen is absolutely lights out, though. They’re loaded with enough power arms in the late innings to overcome any deficiencies in the rotation. I see Atlanta cruising to a wild card spot, possibly even dethroning Washington atop the division.
3rd place: Philadelphia Phillies
This is less a statement about Philly and more about the Mets and Marlins. This team will probably do well to play above .500 ball through the summer. No other team in the league is so reliant on aging veterans. Ryan Howard’s legs are shot. Roy Halladay’s velocity is long gone. Chase Utley is a grinder, but how much longer can he hold up. Or how about Jimmy Rollins? Or Cliff Lee? Or Michael Young? If this were 2006, this team would be unbeatable. Hamels and Lee will give them a real chance to win every time they take the hill, but that’s about it. 82 wins would be best case scenario.
4th place: New York Mets
Let’s start with the good news: they get to play the Marlins a lot. And Matt Harvey is awesome. And David Wright will retire with the Mets. After that….well, it’s a bit more difficult to remain positive. What can you say about a team that traded away the reigning Cy Young award winner whose contract was club friendly? Who knows? Maybe John Buck is really the second coming of Mickey Cochrane. But more realistically, the offense will struggle all year and the young pitching staff will take their lumps as they acclimate from the minors to the bigs. But there’s room for long term optimism. In the next few seasons, Harvey and fellow stud prospect Zack Wheeler could be leading a Mets resurgence in the standings. Until then…like I said, at least you get to play the Marlins.
5th place: Miami Marlins
This team is almost as big a joke as Houston. They traded away all their talent in the offseason in the dump deal with Toronto. And the lone talent left on the big league team, Giancarlo Stanton, is already tweeting his disgust at management for leaving the cupboard so bare. Jacob Turner and Nathan Eovaldi could evolve into serviceable starters, but otherwise this team is going to struggle in every facet of the game.